The remains of the season: Rays

Back in March I wrote the following about the Tampa Bay Rays sans Devil…

Watching the 2008 Tampa Bay Devil Rays will be like watching Natalie Portman in “Beautiful Girls.” You know she is going to be hot when she grows up, but part of you wonders if it is OK to look at a 14-year-old that way. And when she does finally grow up and she is even sexier than you imagined, there is a part of you that still sees the 14-year-old and it makes you feel a little guilty. And yet, you can’t wait for the Tampa Bay Rays first nude scene. … Wait. … What was I saying? Nevermind. … Ladies and gentlemen, these are not your older brother’s Devil Rays.

Five months later we now feel more like a dad who is trying to figure out how his pimply-faced 12-year-old princess suddenly turned into an 18-year old hottie on her way to college. The Rays grew up much faster than even the most optimistic blowhard could have predicted and as RAYSHEADS, we can no longer protect them behind a curtain of anonymity.

The Rays are now front and center in the MLBiverse. Before the season started everybody wanted to be the first to predict a good season for the Rays. But then the Rays got off to a slow start falling as much as 5 back and in last place in the East. The naysayers started early, shouting that it was the “Rays being the Rays.” But then the Rays called up The Dirtbag, Evan Longoria, and they shot to the top.

For all of June and July the Rays shared the top of the standings with the Red Sox. Most wondered if the Rays had any staying power. Certainly they couldn’t hang with Boston. But they were in a good position for the Wild Card. After a 7-game losing streak entering the break, people smarter than us, predicted the end. But since the All-Star break, the Rays are 18-8 and have not relinquished their stranglehold on first place. They have even entered a few nails in the coffin of the mighty Yankees.

But then “The Curse of the New Kids on the Block” reared its ugly head. Carl Crawford was lost for the remainder of the regular season. Jason Bartlett, whose defense has anchored the pitching staff, has missed time. Troy Percival is headed back to the DL for the umpteenth time. But the big blow was the loss of Evan Longoria for 2-3 weeks. For all the good of the Rays, the offense has struggled this season and the Dirtbag has been the one constant force.

So now the experts are predicting imminent doom. Rick Reilly even declared that midnight has come for the Rays. Are the “experts” correct? Let’s ask the Magic 8-Ball…

1. Can a team that has never won more than 70 games make the playoffs with all of the recent injuries? Magic 8-ball says: Just take a look at the standings. Right now, it is nearly impossible for the Rays to fall out of contention. The West has already been won and there are no wild card contenders. In the East and the Central there are four teams for three spots and the Rays have the best record of the group. The Yankees may have an outside shot at the Wild Card, but they cannot make up 10 games in the loss column on the Rays.

Even if the Rays finished 21-21 down the stretch, the Yankees would have to go 30-11 just to tie. The Yankees are roadkill. The key is the distance between the Rays and the Twins, which now stands at 6 games. If the Red Sox do surpass the Rays in the East, can the Twinkies make up a 6-game deficit in 40 games? Not impossible, but not likely either. So the question should be: Will the Rays make the playoffs? It would take a collapse of Metsian proportions for the Devil Dogs to miss October baseball.

2. With Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford out with injuries, do the Rays have to add a bat through a waiver-trade? Magic 8-ball says: Before the trading deadline, many thought the Rays needed to add more offense. Now, calls for the Rays to sign Barry Bonds or trade for Gary Sheffield or Raul Ibanez have turned into shouts. But I am not so sure it is necessary. The Rays have been carried all season by their pitching and for the most part that group is intact. And with their lead in the East, the Rays have a cushion to play with.

Longoria will be back in time for the tough stretch at the beginning of September when they play the Red Sox and Yankees 12 times in 16 days. And should the Devil Dogs make the playoffs, Crawford should be ready to run in October.

But the biggest reason we are not worried is the recent reemergence of Carlos Pena. Like the Rays, many predicted a fall for El Gato. And for the first three months of the season it looked like they were right. But since the All-Star break Pena has 8 home runs and a 1.009 OPS. And he is hitting home runs at a pace (1 every 10.9 ABs) similar to ’07 (1 every 10.7 ABs). Pena and Co. are not going to remind anybody of the ’27 Yankees, but there is enough offense to support the pitching staff and hold off all challengers for the final six weeks.

3. Will last year’s top pick, David Price, be promoted to the Rays down the stretch and what would his role be? Magic 8-ball says: We keep going back and forth on this one. Some in the local media feel it is only a question of “when”. That is not the Rays’ MO. The Rays are a team that rarely commit to a course of action until a decision is required.

After starting the season in high-A, Price has been promoted twice and recently made his triple-A debut, which also happened to be his first loss as a pro. Certainly Price is an option but the biggest reason they may choose not to, is the fear of putting too many pitches on Price’s young arm. He suffered from a sore shoulder in the spring causing him to miss the first month of the season, but that also means his arm may still have a few bullets left.

If the Rays do call on the top prospect, he could be used in the ‘pen, much like the Yankees used Joba Chamberlain last season. This may even be a necessity with the loss of Troy Percival. But his role would have to be clearly defined. You don’t want a young pitcher without any bullpen experience warming up four times every night.

And while the rotation is where his talents are better suited, who would be out of a job? The obvious names are Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson. But Sonny is 12-6 with a 4.35 ERA and Jackson is 4-1 in 5 starts since the All-Star break. Ultimately, the bullpen seems more likely but I am still not convinced he will be promoted.

4. If the playoffs are the ultimate goal, is winning the division important? Magic 8-ball says: It is nice having the Wild Card to fall back on. If making the playoffs is the goal, then the Rays should worry more about the Twins than the Red Sox. But the goal should always be winning the World Series and that goal will be more easily achieved if the Rays win the East.

If the Rays win the division, they will face the winner of the Central (White Sox or Twins). A win in the first round will mean a likely matchup with the Angels-Red Sox winner. On the other hand, if the Devil Dogs are the Wild Card team, they would likely have to defeat the Angels and the Red Sox to make it to the Fall Classic. That is a tall order. Besides, how sweet will it be to say the Rays slew not one, but both of baseball’s giants in one season. But, as long as there are still more teams than chairs, a playoff spot…any playoff spot…is the goal.

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